I strive to be Atlanta’s best wedding officiant by crafting custom ceremonies for each and every couple I marry.
I wanted to start 2019 by explaining how a wedding ceremony works, part by part.
Many couples think their Vows are the entirety of a ceremony, and the magical moment when they become married. Actually, Vows are just a small segment of a larger ceremony, albeit the most romantic part. The words an officiant needs to hear in order to marry you are “I Do” or “I Will” to the question of “Do you want to be married to this person?”
But let’s start at the beginning – where else? The Processional, or walking-in, can be done in many ways, but the most common is for one partner to be waiting at the front, and the other walks down the aisle with guests standing in respect. Many times, it is the groom at the altar, and the bride walking down the aisle, sometimes with a father or mentor. Historically, this was because the bride “belonged” to the father until he “gave” her to her husband. But anymore, it’s simply a respectful gesture to someone who means a lot to you and perhaps help raise you. And, if you’re a little nervous being the focus of so much attention, having someone walk next to you can be comforting. If you’re the partner, usually the groom, waiting at the top of the aisle, you usually have your groomsmen and officiant there to calm your nerves.
Though as an officiant, I don’t deal directly with music, typically you will need 2-3 different songs for the Processional. One is for family members and special guests who you want seated apart from most of your guests. That song also can be used for the groom, groomsmen, and officiant, who walk down the aisle or come in from the side. Another song is needed for the wedding party. If the groomsmen didn’t walk in from the side, they can escort the bridesmaids down the aisle, then split off to their respective sides when reaching the altar area. Finally, ring bearers and flower girls come down the aisle. If you’ve been keeping track, depending on how many are in your wedding party and how well-behaved your ring bearer and flower girl are, this song might need to be a bit longer. Finally, the partner of honor, usually the bride, needs their own song. Keep your venue in mind when choosing songs. It doesn’t take more than 30 seconds, generally, for the bride to walk down the aisle, and it becomes very awkward for everyone if you’ve made it to the ceremony spot and expect the music to continue playing for another 2 minutes, so pick something short and meaningful.
Everyone is now in their ceremony location, and the guests are standing. The bride is with her father-figure, the groomsmen on the right side (looking toward the front), the bridesmaids on the left, the officiant in the middle, and the groom is waiting eagerly to hold hands with his beloved.
Let me warn you that the Processional is by far the most frightening and nerve-wracking part of the ceremony for the couple. If you aren’t used to being the center of attention, having dozens if not hundreds of your friends and family looking at you at the same time, it can be overwhelming. The key is to focus on your beloved, whether they are waiting at the top of the aisle for you, or walking down the aisle to you. And it’s OK to cry a little. Keep a kerchief in your hand near the bouquet, or in your pocket, and dab (don’t wipe!) the tears away. The good news is that once you’ve reached your final spot, time seems to go into overdrive.
Up next, the Blessing of the Ceremony Space. Tune in next week for a detailed explanation.
(Keep in mind, same sex weddings can be quite different, or virtually the same, for the Processional. Make sure to speak with your officiant and day-of coordinator of your wishes. Just because this is a traditional Processional doesn’t mean you must do it this way. However, this order is well-understood in the wedding professions, and it works, perhaps because it has been perfected over the centuries.)
According to some theologians, places can be either “sacred” or “profane.” While the word “profane” might make you think of horrible acts or thoughts, it simply means “a place not set apart for special purposes.” Your wedding ceremony is a special moment, and its location will forever be etched in your mind.
Asking for your wedding ceremony to be held in a “sacred” space is a great way to put you and your soon-to-be spouse in a conscious state of NOW, and encourages your guests to be active participants in your union.
A Sacred Space Blessing can be tailored to any religion, or simply secular. God, or a Higher Power can be invoked, or not. If not, asking your guests to add their positive thoughts to the location and relationship is a non-religious version of a Sacred Space.
One of my favorite blessings is a twist on Saint Patrick’s Prayer of Protection, here, in the original:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
As mentioned, this simple prayer can be altered to reflect your personal beliefs and those of your families and friends. And, it can be summed up in a shorter version.
A Sacred Space Blessing is usually performed directly after all of your wedding party has reached their ceremony spots, while your guests are still standing in respect of the bride. It sets the tone for the rest of your wedding, and focuses the attention of all gathered.
A bride being escorted down the aisle by a loved one is a quintessential part of the “storybook wedding” many people dream about. But, in this modern age, many brides are conflicted about being “given away” at their wedding. Women are no longer seen as property, to be given by a father to a husband. However, this ritual, with a few twists, can be a sweet and memorable part of your wedding ceremony.
Many brides choose to walk down the aisle with a father, both parents, a mentor, or even their children. Especially for the nervous bride wearing high heels, having an arm to hold on to is a blessing. Your “escort” is a person of honor, someone you want to highlight to your guests. More eyes will be watching you, and this special person, than at any other time – perhaps in your entire life. Showing gratitude and respect to someone by asking them to walk you down the aisle is one of the greatest gifts a bride can give.
But what about the officiant? “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” There’s that tricky “gives” again. The fix is surprisingly simple: “Who presents this woman to be married?” Again, you’re honoring your escort by letting him, her, or them, respond. In fact, in several weddings I’ve officiated, though only the father walked the bride down the aisle, the entirety of the bride’s family responded, “We do.” You could even have both families present both parties, to feel the support from all sides.
As a bit of choreography, the father/escort, after responding “I do” to the question you’ve chosen, will give a little kiss to the bride, then shake the groom’s hand. Some brides want their veil lifted by her escort, while others choose to keep the veil down until The Kiss. As the escort is sitting down, the officiant asks all the guests, who have risen to “welcome the bride,” to be seated. And then the wedding ceremony can begin in earnest.
Up next…The Welcome.
Think of the Procession, a Blessing of Space, and Giving Away of the Bride as a prelude or introduction. The Welcome marks the true start of your wedding ceremony and sets the tone for the rest of the proceedings.
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today…” is probably the best-known Welcome, despite the archaic language. You want your Welcome to be strong, fairly brief (there’s a LOT of ceremony left!), and perhaps hint at what is to come.
For example, if you are Christian, mentioning that a husband should love his wife as Christ loves His church, would be appropriate. If you are more spiritual than religious, you might like a comment about God bringing the two of you together. Or, for the most modern of couples, a statement like, “On this day, two souls cry out for union!” might fit your beliefs and relationship.
The point of the Welcome is to express thanks to all who have gathered at your wedding. After all that debate of who to invite, who RSVPs, and who actually shows up, now is the moment to thank those present for supporting your new marriage.
Next is when your personalities start to shine – The Opening Words/Prayer/Readings.
Your guests are seated and welcomed. Now you and your beloved are holding hands at the top of the aisle. The next part of a wedding ceremony is an opening prayer or words of wisdom. This can be followed by readings. Let’s break this down:
Having officiated numerous weddings, I can “read” an audience. Are they watching and listening? Are they admiring the décor? Are they starting to doze off?
One way to prevent the latter is to change things up – hear a different voice, stand, or actively participate. A particularly subtle way to have participation is by prayer. Your guests are no longer passively listening, but put in a state of prayer. And present enough to “Amen” at the end.
Even more effective is hearing a different voice. That’s where a reading can fit the bill. And no, a reading doesn’t have to be religious! Of course, you may choose a passage from the Bible or some other religious text. However, I’ve had couples choose dialogue from their favorite movie, the lyrics to a favorite song, or even a funny poem about marriage and dogs. It’s best if you have a friend or family member read whatever you choose, so that the officiant’s voice doesn’t go on too long between more “passive” parts.
The next step is to define marriage for yourselves and your guests – The Charge.